Sartre Vs. Nobel. The Arguments Behind the Refusal

 On the 22nd of October 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and refused it. The ceremony held by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm was not attended by the writer. In a public announcement, printed in Le Figaro on the 23rd of October 1964, Sartre expressed his regret at the scandal which his decision had caused in the press and tried to motivate it by private choices. He recalled the fact that he had indeed previously refused the Legion of Honour as well as entry to the Collège de France, and that he would have rejected the Lenin Prize too had it been ever offered to him. As his objective reasons, Sartre held that:

“The confrontation of these two cultures (East and West) must necessarily take the form of a conflict—but this confrontation must occur between men and between cultures, without the intervention of institutions. I myself am deeply affected by the contradiction between the two cultures: I am made up of such contradictions. My sympathies undeniably go to socialism and to what is called the Eastern bloc, but I was born and brought up in a bourgeois family and a bourgeois culture. This permits me to collaborate with all those who seek to bring the two cultures closer together. I nonetheless hope, of course, that “the best man wins.” That is, socialism. (Jean-Paul Sartre explained his refusal to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in a statement made to the Swedish Press on October 22, which appeared in Le Monde in a French translation approved by Sartre. The following translation into English was made by Richard the NY Times)

Furthermore, he argued that past Nobel prizes have neglected writers of many ideologies and nations, so he could not fit into an unjust selection system. In a later televised interview, Sartre called the prize being offered to him as a ‘monstrous’ gesture, by which the most established Western institution was prepared to ‘pardon’ him for his previous political allegiances and activism and ‘clear’ his reputation to the world by making him an official bearer of the prize. Ultimately, it all came down to his reputation as a writer who stays true to his ideological choices and who cannot be hypocritically accepting an honour from a Western landmark institution whilst continuing his literary propaganda as if nothing had changed his name and career: “A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”

The final argument in support of his refusal was the monetary gain which would have come with the acceptance of the Nobel Prize: 250,000 Swedish crowns would have been around 18,000 pounds at the time, a large amount. Sartre wrote about the problematic situation this honour made him face:

“It is a very heavy burden that the Academy imposes upon the laureate by accompanying its homage with an enormous sum, and this problem has tortured me. Either one accepts the prize and with the prize money can support organizations or movements one considers important—my own thoughts went to the Apartheid committee in London. Or else one declines the prize on generous principles, and thereby deprives such a movement of badly needed support. But I believe this to be a false problem. I obviously renounce the 250,000 crowns because I do not wish to be institutionalized in either East or West. But one cannot be asked on the other hand to renounce, for 250,000 crowns, principles which are not only one’s own, but are shared by all one’s comrades.”

After the awards ceremony, Sartre tried to escape the media by hiding in the house of Simone de Beauvoir’s sister Hélène in Goxwiller, Alsace and isolated himself from public scrutiny. In the same year, he put an end to his literary career with a witty and sarcastic autobiography he called Les mots or Words (1964). In this book, Sartre concluded that he was distancing himself from literature at large as it only represented a bourgeois substitute for real commitment in the world. He wrote Les mots as a way to discover why he had himself become a writer, “claiming that he has undergone a healing process through its writing”. (Sartre Studies International | June 1, 2005 | Gillespie, John 2000 Berghahn Books)